Church, Community Leaders Join Forces to Fight Drug Abuse
NEW YORK — AMERICA'S war on drugs is failing and desperately needs a new strategy.That's the view of a new coalition of church and community leaders called Causes & Cures. These leaders say current federal policy overemphasizes law enforcement. They want to see more federal funds put into treatment, education, and job training and more energetic action at the grass-roots level. To underscore the point, the coalition announced its agenda last week on a busy Harlem block reclaimed by residents after a drug dealer takeover (see accompanying story). Causes & Cures, which includes officials from some 20 denominations, has six task forces working on issues ranging from the causes of drug abuse to the role of US foreign policy in world drug trafficking. The reports will be made public Oct. 30.
Teleconference for ideas The coalition plans to hold a teleconference on Nov. 9 with groups in more than 160 US cities from a base in New York City's Marble Collegiate Church. Callers will share ideas about everything from programs that work to the proper federal role in curbing narcotics supply and demand. "We are overwhelmed with an epidemic of drugs in this country ... it's time to fight back," says Michael Kendall, archdeacon of New York City for the Episcopal Church and a member of the coalition's steering committee. "Religious institutions and grass-roots organizers need to reclaim the streets ... and reclaim the spirit of the people," agrees the Riverside Church's associate minister, the Rev. Erik Kolbell. The message that citizen efforts can succeed came through loud and clear. Imam Siraj Wahhaj, a Muslim leader from Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant section, recalled the decision by his neighborhood in 1988 to close down 15 crack houses. The action required outside help but community determination was key, he says. "One thing we've learned is that you can't come in and throw goodwill and money at a problem when there is no community support," agrees Rabbi Balfour Brickner, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in the South Bronx. Coordinator of Causes & Cures is the Washington-based Christic Institute, the liberal interfaith public-interest law group that successfully championed the case of nuclear plant employee Karen Silkwood and has frequently challenged the federal government on its covert operations. Many coalition members argue that US intelligence dealings with people like former Panamanian chief Manuel Noriega have played a key role in increasing the supply of drugs now in this country. Though the number of illegal drug users is less than it was during the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s, experts say heroin is coming into the US at an increasing rate and that violent crime, much of it drug-related, went up 11 percent last year. Coalition leaders say treatment and other help must be made available to drug users who want it. "We can't expect to incarcerate people and then release them to communities that can least afford to support them," says a board member, Bishop Felton May of the United Methodist Church. "We have to create an environment where they have a fair chance of survival." Noting that 5 million women last year sought drug treatment but could not get it, Sara Nelson, executive director of the Christic Institute, says the coalition is likely to urge more treatment centers. "Why aren't we helping people get off this stuff when they want to?" she asks.
Peace Corps approach "Most addicts hate what they're doing - they feel inadequate and inferior and they want to get off drugs," says George Richardson, a former heroin addict and four-term New Jersey legislator. He and social activist Ingrid Frank have long urged a Peace Corps-in-the-streets approach to the drug problem and are working with the city to set up a pilot project of mobile units to offer treatment and support. Mr. Richardson recalls that during the summer he often noticed hundreds of drug buyers and sellers along the sidewalks. Like addicts, he says, many sellers are trapped in a business they, too, would rather leave and need help in finding a way out. "It's a self-defeating thing," he says. "It takes people who insist, 'You really CAN overcome this.